Kids and technology

It’s parents vs. kids when high-tech gadgets invade the home front. One dad keeps score

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I got a parenting tip from Kid Rock recently. Yes, that Kid Rock. The ex-Mr. Pamela Anderson was telling David Letterman how he had taken his son and a classmate to a movie. Kid Rock returned from fetching popcorn to find the boys had ditched him and moved to another row. The son said he’s a teen now, so it’s no longer cool to sit with Dad. Steam hissed from the brim of Kid Rock’s purple fedora. Through gritted teeth, the punchline: “But I’m probably the coolest dad in this entire state!”

Where’s the parenting wisdom in that, you ask? Well, Mr. Rock, like me, is clearly learning that family relationships do not stand still. My long-cherished bedtime reads are dwindling; my 10-year-old daughter can do without my big nose in her vampire books; and my son, when not hinting about 13th birthday presents, is quietly cultivating Facebook friends at a exponential pace. Not a lot of elbow room for an old guy in that crowd.

Like Kid Rock, I consider myself — well, if not quite cool, at least not clueless, particularly about the preteen gadgets that are sucking up so much of our former family time. So, instead of declaring cellphones, iPods and a dozen Internet applets my sworn rivals, I am trying to see if high-tech toys harbour any insights about my kids’ lives.

Kids are resourceful

So, cellphones then. What can cellphones say about a parent-child relationship?

Not so long ago, a dad I know was forced by his bosses to get a mobile phone. His teen boys were only too pleased to help Pop get wired. In fact, they busied themselves at his phone for ages and, without telling him, customized his ring tones, so that if they called him from home, his phone would loudly ring with the groans of a woman in the throes of hanky-panky. Then they made a point of calling Dad when they knew he was in a tense meeting…. These were boys who were certain of two things: First, that their dad’s embarrassment would be tempered by his laughter and, second, that he would have no clue how to silence their prank call.

I can confirm: Kids are resourceful wrestlers of amusement from gadgets. I don’t know how my two make games appear on their iPods, but they do. No question, they outstrip us at the fun stuff, but when the going gets practical? Surely every child to lay sticky paws on a keyboard can now google really quickly. And really badly. Check out the search terms they use next time your kids come home with a project on, say, Ancient Egyptian Food. Ten million useless hits later, it feels so good to show them what a difference contextual words make, or how +, – and “ ” can dramatically focus their searches. Even more satisfying is the fleeting moment when they look at me, frankly startled that I have competently used any technology developed since the Edison coil.

I’m not saying simply that gadgets create a rift. Over the years my kids and I have swapped countless YouTube videos. (Recent faves: “Iron Man vs. Bruce Lee” and “Extreme sheep LED art.”) But I can sense our YouTube connection sputtering. We used to make short videos together that we would upload — like our travelogue from last year’s canoe trip. Now, not so much. For my 12-year-old, Joe, family videos are becoming a bit embarrassing. (Scratch videos; family is embarrassing, period.) Still, whatever the next big video-sharing gizmo is, I’m staying on top of it, even if I have to wait for grandchildren to be my co-producers.

Mixed signals

Mixed signals, too, come from the expanding universe of video and computer games. I have tried and tried, but I mostly feel sedated by the endless pressing of x and b buttons. By contrast, Joe is an expert at building virtual NBA dynasties and shooting pterodactyls from skyscrapers. But sometimes as I watch him, I think that if he put those same hours into a clarinet (like his sister, Meg), we’d have another Artie Shaw in our midst. Still, I try to be optimistic: When our planet is invaded by aliens, they won’t stand a chance against the z-targeting skills of Joe and his buddies. I remember a bit sadly that I used to print out long pages of hints and shortcuts for fantastic Zelda Nintendo adventures. I would read out the tips to Joe, like a navigator to his driver in some fiendish car rally, while he slashed and romped through the Ocarina of Time. Helping a child learn to fly through forests and shoot exploding nuts at spiders is, or was, surprisingly satisfying.

No rumination on families and technology is complete without pausing a moment for television — my generation’s sweet spot. My own parents were troubled by my expert cable watching as a kid. I could (and to my shame, still can) recite 1970s commercials verbatim. (Remember Alice from The Brady Bunch shilling for Minute Rice — tap-tapping the package with her wooden spoon? Me too. Word for agonizing word.) Were my parents as appalled by this evidence of devotion as I am now, when Meg mimics Galen Weston Jr.’s latest President’s Choice frozen breakthrough?

Television is technology I am on easy terms with, even if I am not actually up to speed, judging by the frustration I cause the kids when I seize control of our clicker. Their agony is acute as they squirm beside me, keening: “Go channel up! Dad!!! The yellow button! Search by show. By SHOW!… Just go program 3-2-1, Enter!” Meg, who is usually quite polite, says simply: “It’s like you’re reading everything. Twice!” My cold comfort for them: “When I was a child, I was the clicker!”

Some more old-school technology came into play this week while I was bent into the ancestral washing machine. Pulling the laundry out, I was shamefaced to find Joe’s cellphone writhing among the cold, wet jeans.

“Joe!” I called to him. “Don’t you check your pockets before you chuck stuff in the hamper?”

“Dad!” he called back. “Don’t you?”

We are, I guess, always in transition, always eyeing one another in our family dance. The kids are inevitably pulling ahead in the gadget game, but I can still dust off the occasional analogue manoeuvre. Joe was a little bit distraught about his soggy cellphone, but I knew that you could save a wet phone (or iPod) by putting it in a zip-top bag full of uncooked rice for a few days. It dries out and works fine.

Nifty trick for an old guy, eh? I haven’t decided whether to let them know I picked that one up from Twitter.

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